GTA 5 Review: Damn it Feels Good (& Bad) to Be a Gangsta
Yep, 100 Problems
So if it’s as good as it sounds, what’s the problem?
There are minor issues which really ought to be patched, of course. Performance is spotty, with long loading times when you start the game or load a save, and a surprising amount of pop-in textures, even on the PS3 version. Side activities can also stand a tweak, since so many of them can be maddeningly vague as to how they are activated or completed. The tow truck missions, for instance, that you activate near the beginning of the game are particularly bad, and it’s often unclear how to even access them. There are also more than a few such side missions that are hard to discover and once missed, become permanently unavailable. I like the idea of random encounters, but it would be nice to be able to find them all during the post-game free play.
There’s also the fact that the GTA series has never really solved the problem of making such a huge map feel entirely not-tedious, and if anything, that problem is worse now. GTA V metes out safe houses for each character like wartime rations, allowing for the most part only one per character (this changes slightly late game). Yes, you can buy properties all over Los Santos and Blaine County, but none of them are safe houses. This is a bit ‘realistic’, but it makes something as simple as changing clothes feel like a major chore, especially after the Saints Row series added the ability to access your complete wardrobe from any clothing store in the game. Add to this the inscrutable nature of stuff like the in-game stock market, and there’s a lot that needs to be fixed.
But minor problems are, of course, minor. Check out our fuller list of the ways GTA V could be improved for PC here. Alas, GTA V is also diminished by two more integral problems that could easily have been avoided, were it not for what I can only assume is a slight creative entropy at Rockstar.
The first is the game’s satirical elements. This series has long existed simultaneously as an extremely fun murder simulator with elements cribbed from crime film and TV, and a deliberate satire of contemporary – or at least, period appropriate – American culture. These satirical elements were conveyed via radio programs, TV shows, random NPC dialogue and the occasional comic relief character in-story, and all came together to not only take the edge off these games’ bleakness, but also tell a larger story about the world in which the games take place. That aspect of the series hasn’t changed, but what has changed is that GTA V’s writers don’t seem all that plugged in to the zeitgeist of American culture. At least as it has existed in the five years since GTA IV launched in spring, 2008.
Regular Game Front readers know my politics lean further to the left than Sweden taking a San Francisco vacation, so I want to make it clear I am not upset that my political views aren’t being pandered to. Quite the opposite, in fact. What bugged me is the way, whether the barbs were aimed left or right, quite often the mockery wasn’t based on a kernel of truth, but on the stereotypes each political faction tends to say about the other faction.
Take Republican Space Rangers, for instance, the fictional cartoon series you could watch on television sets throughout Liberty City in GTA IV. Republican Space Rangers was perhaps the most hilarious part of the game’s meta experience, a brutal parody of American jingoism during the war on terror that perfectly suited the way Niko experienced his crash course in America as the game progressed.
That show returns in GTA V, but this time it falls flat, mainly because it relies heavily on rehashing jokes from GTA IV, only louder. It also makes heavy use of stereotypes that feel more based on what, say, I might say about the Tea Party than perhaps what the Tea Party actually says. Meanwhile, GTA V introduces a politically opposite parody, Impotent Rage, The Liberal Super Hero. Both of these parodies rely on tired, played out stereotypes that haven’t been funny since the 90s. The result is that the satire feels toothless, particularly when they rely on jokes we all heard in GTA III, GTA Vice City, GTA San Andreas and GTA IV.
And these are just the most easy to find examples. Listen to West Coast Talk Radio, pay attention to the commercials between songs, take part in several random encounters, even during a few cut scenes, and more often than not you’ll find the same thing again and again and again. GTA V’s take on America of 2013 – high unemployment, Millennial-generation unrest, the way the issues of gay rights and of sexism in mass media and politics have become mainstream, a technologically overloaded society, and an absolutely crazy body politic – feels extraordinarily broad and shallow, to the point it becomes difficult to grok what it is Rockstar is even trying to satirize.
It’s not a total wash, thankfully. There’s a really funny series of jokes at the expense of the recent trend in people claiming sex addiction as a catch-all excuse for a lack of self control or discretion. There’s a series of missions involving the Epsilon cult, the GTA universe’s obvious parody of Scientology, that are biting and fearless. There are some funny digs at the kind of culture that produces legislation to legalize open-carry for the blind. There’s even a starts-annoying-but-eventually-makes-sense running gag about the way Gen-X, the Baby Boomers, and Millenials see one other.
But for the most part, the background satire that used to be one of the series biggest delights has become tedious. Reliance on played-out stereotypes, rehashed jokes, diminishing returns, it’s all very poorly done. I can’t help but think things would have been vastly improved by bringing in someone who has no previous ties to the GTA series to help the writers tighten up this aspect of the game. That’s a real shame, especially since the socio-political commentary relayed during the actual story is so insightful (and gloriously bitter.)
But of course, the real elephant in the room is the controversy over Grand Theft Auto V’s perceived misogyny. This is going to be a source of intense controversy, but I’ll admit, with the caveat that it only slightly affects my overall score, that I think these complaints have a lot of merit. Namely, the paucity of women in the game, as well as an extremely disturbing mini game that, unlike the torture scene I mentioned early, serves no purpose narratively or thematically. In this regard GTA V feels like a serious missed opportunity. For those of you interested, you can read a fuller breakdown of why this bugged me in an editorial we’ll be publishing tomorrow.